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Redefining Sexual Assault

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By Megan Thielking

Out of every 100 rapes, 46 are reported to police. Twelve of these result in an arrest, and nine of those will lead to prosecution. Five of these prosecutions end with a felony conviction. Only three result in prison time served. Sexual assault is obviously an issue. It’s pervasive. Statistically speaking, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes. That's (probably) less than the time it will take you to read this article. As part of the campus dialogue on sexual assault during Northwestern's Take Back the Night campaign, we take a look at the ways in which sexual assault is an issue in terms of policies and politics.

Take Back the Night event at Northwestern in 2011. Photo by Natalie Krebs / North by Northwestern.

It’s a state issue

Every state has outlawed sexual assault, but each state has its own definition of what sexual assault means. States use sexual assault as an umbrella term, its meaning ranging from attempted rape to incest. Pennsylvania, for example, has fairly progressive rape laws. There, resistance need not be proven, so victims who fear for their safety if they resist can still press rape charges. In contrast, Delaware requires that rape victims prove that their assault was both nonconsensual and caused them “serious physical injury or serious mental or emotional injury.” Rape victims in Delaware must also prove resistance “to the extent that it is reasonably necessary to make the victim’s refusal to consent known to the defendant,” meaning that silent victims aren’t victims of rape at all in the eyes of Delaware lawmakers.

It’s also a national issue

The Federal Bureau of Investigation revamped the federal definition of rape in January this year, marking the first change in its meaning in 83 years. The former federal definition excluded male victims, as well as what were seen as non-traditional rape victims. It also previously defined rape as only “forcible” sexual acts, again discounting victims who did not verbally resist due to fear or intimidation. The change in the federal definition, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, means that “rape is rape is rape,” making rape a uniform crime nationally.

It's an issue of resources

When a sexual assault victim reports their assault to the police, he or she can have a rape kit administered, which collects DNA evidence for prosecution. These rape kits often go untested because of the time and effort it takes local authorities to test DNA, with some cities accumulating thousands of them. Consider one example: in 1999, New York City discovered a backlog of 16,000 rape kits. The city implemented a policy that mandated that all rape kits booked into evidence be tested. The city also embarked upon testing all of the backlogged rape kits. Since the testing of those 16,000 kits, the NYPD arrest rate for rapes has jumped from 40 percent of reported cases to 70 percent of reported cases, and the numbers of prosecutions and convictions for rape have increased as well. 

It’s a college issue

In the United States alone, one in 33 men and one in six women have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. In terms of Northwestern's undergraduate population, those numbers translate into approximately 855 victims of rape or attempted rape on our campus. The impact of sexual assault on Northwestern's campus grows when we consider how many students here have friends and family members that are victims. Sarah Daoud, a junior and co-chair of the Take Back the Night campaign, says that "rape culture is prevalent on college campuses." Daoud feels that sexual assault is central to the semi-mainstream college culture of alcohol and hooking up, and that conversation about it is key in debunking myths about what sexual assault is and isn't. Daoud added that it is important to empower survivors on college campuses by giving them support from their peers and community through events on campus such as the Take Back the Night.

Originally published at North by Northwestern.